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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

When your champions league dream runs through a war zone

Lassina Traoré said he returned to Shakhtar as a matter of honor. “For me, it was time to give back the love they gave me before.

By Tariq Panja

By the time Lassina Traoré returned to his team, everybody else was gone.

In 2021, Traoré, a forward from Burkina Faso, had joined the other expensive foreign recruits lured to Ukraine by the country’s perennial soccer champion, Shakhtar Donetsk. Back then, Traoré played in a team built around a Brazilian core, supplemented by other foreign talent and some of Ukrainian soccer’s best players, for a club that was regarded as arguably the top team in Eastern Europe. Then the Russian bombs began to fall, and everything changed.

When Shakhtar returned to practice after a monthslong hiatus abroad, the cosmopolitan air of the club had vanished. A roster that had been dotted with almost a dozen Brazilians just over a year ago now contains only one. Clubs elsewhere in Europe, shopping for bargains amid broken contracts, skimmed off other talent. Even Roberto De Zerbi, Shakhtar’s highly rated Italian coach, had moved on.

Traoré, like all the others, could have gone, too. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, issued an edict shortly after the start of the war that allowed foreigners, whatever their contractual status, to unilaterally quit Ukrainian teams and sign elsewhere.

Traoré was vacationing in Barcelona, Spain, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. He could only follow from afar as Shakhtar’s foreign stars — crammed in a hotel conference room with their families — pleaded for help as war planes circled the skies above Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Within a few days, they had left the country. Those who escaped did not return.

Traoré returned to Amsterdam, where he had previously played for the Dutch club Ajax, to wait out the early months of the war. While the rest of Shakhtar’s armada of foreign talent found new clubs — some back home in Brazil, others in Europe — Traoré took his time. Slowly, the thought of returning to Shakhtar started to look like not only a viable option but the right thing to do.

“I had many options,” he said after a recent practice in Kyiv, where the team has been based for the last few weeks. “The club knows. I know. And we discussed it. But I decided to stay.”

For him, he said, “it’s in my culture that when they give you something, you have to give something back. For me, it was time to give back the love they gave me before.”

Traoré said that he understood why many of his teammates decided not to return. He admitted that he had some difficult conversations with his wife and parents before agreeing to do so. (His wife is now living with his parents at their home in Paris.)

For most of the season the team lived in a hotel complex in the western city of Lviv, but it has recently moved to Kyiv, closer to its training ground. A return to Donetsk, in the east, is out of the question; Russian forces have controlled the city since last year, joining separatists that forced Shakhtar into exile as long ago as 2014.

The club Traoré has rejoined is a shadow of the powerhouse it once was. The squad and its finances have been gutted; Shakhtar estimates that it has lost at least $40 million worth of talent for nothing as a result of FIFA’s decision to let players walk away from their contracts.

“We have no money,” the club’s CEO, Sergei Palkin, said on a recent visit to London. The Ukrainian league’s return, as much a symbol of the country’s resolve as a sporting competition, is played out in front of empty stands and to the sound of occasional air raid sirens forcing players from the field. The league’s television contract has collapsed. Sponsors have all but disappeared.

“We have no income from Ukraine,” Palkin said. “Zero.”

What money there is has come from Shakhtar’s presence in the Champions League and the Europa League, European soccer’s second-tier competition, and from the record transfer fee the club received by selling its star Ukrainian forward Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea in England.

New money cannot come soon enough. While FIFA allowed foreign players to leave Shakhtar without a fee, it insisted the club pay any debts to the clubs it signed those foreign players from, including a handful that did not play a single minute for the club because of the war, according to Palkin.

Traoré’s decision to return, then, came as a pleasant surprise. He had cost the club $10 million in a transfer fee when he joined from Ajax in 2021. A forward who was not considered a mainstay before the war, he is suddenly a pivotal figure, and not just for what he is doing on the field.

His continued presence, Traoré and the club hope, is a sign to potential recruits that soccer in Ukraine remains a viable career option. It is an option that proved alluring to players with European dreams like Kevin Kelsy, an 18-year-old striker from Venezuela.

Not so long ago Kelsy would not have been a target for Shakhtar, which for years used the wealth of its oligarch owner to shop at a higher price bracket. But now, in its more straitened state, Shakhtar has turned to eager young players like Kelsy and recruits from Georgia and Tajikistan.

Kelsy said signing a five-year contract with a club in a country at war was a surprisingly easy decision. The prospect of fulfilling a dream of making it to Europe trumped everything else, he said — even the persistent threat from Russian missiles and planes, the regular drone of air raid sirens and the rumble of distant explosions. His family, though, had questions.

“When I told them, they asked, ‘Why Ukraine?’” he said in an interview in Spanish. “They knew everything that happened, and there was a little bit of nervousness and a little of fear. But I spoke to them about this theme, that it’s very important for me to go to play football in Europe, in a big team like Shakhtar, and in the end they understood.”

Kelsy, like the scores of South Americans who have signed for Ukrainian clubs in the past, views the club as a steppingstone on a journey that he hopes might one day propel him to the club of his dreams, AC Milan. Games in elite competitions like the Champions League, he knows, offer an elite stage to show he belongs. (Shakhtar, which led the Ukrainian league entering the weekend, is on track to return to the competition next season.)

Having lost so many players, Palkin, the Shakhtar CEO, now insists that any new recruits sign contracts that include clauses that would prevent them from taking advantage of any FIFA regulations that would allow them to suddenly leave. Any player who signs on now, he said, surely understands the commitment they are making.

So strong is the pull of making it as a professional in Europe, though, that Kelsy said not even war could stop him from coming. “I try not to think about it,” he said, “and focus on what matters now.”

As a new recruit, Kelsy knows no other reality as a Shakhtar player. That is not the case for Traoré, who recalls far more luxurious times. In those days, jet travel and big crowds were the norm, not the long, arduous bus journeys that are now required to fulfill fixtures in empty stadiums.

“It’s not normal life like we used to have: no home, you can’t see family, and also you have to always be careful, sirens on all the time,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

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